Article: Phillip Island Penguins - Habits and Characteristics

By M.T.C.

Published in the Age, 11 February 1950

In the dimness of late evening, the people waited quietly. They were lined up on the outside of each of the two short fences that ran the last 20 yards up the high slope of the beach, into the first of the tussocked sandhills.

The fence posts were weathered and the barbed wire rusty and slack, but no one thought of encroaching even an inch on the sandy stretch between the two railings.

That was the stage, all set for the show. And the actors - straight from the sea - were expected at any moment!

Away to the left and to the right swept miles of lonely rock-bound coast, and behind, stretching inland, were tufty, sandy paddocks where sheep grazed, and the haunts of men were scattered and few. The big buses that had brought the crowd to this spot on the southern tip of Phillip Island, at the mouth of Westernport, were hidden by the belt of tea-tree.

The Arrival

In the half light, the powerful Bass Strait rollers were long ribbons of white sweeping with a slow booming regularity into this short stretch of beach. All eyes were fixed steadily on the wet patch left by every receding wave, straining harder as 
the darkness deepened. Then a murmur, excited but softly spoken, alerted the crowd. "Here they come!"

As the roller washed backwards after depositing its cargo, the little forms, seeming to arise out of the sand Itself, stood erect on their two back webbed feet, and, one by one, came forward until, just beyond reach or the next wave, they paused to make formation.

They were the penguin parents - flightless birds of the sea - returning, after a long day's fishing, with food for their offspring. Not until everyone of this particular group – there were other groups forming at intervals along the stretch of beach - had packed into close lines, a dozen or so abreast, like so many white waist-coated soldiers, did they begin their march to the nests.

As they always come in from the sea at the same place, and the various groups have their own spot for the march, the fences ensure them a clear passage and allow the onlookers a good view, without any interference with the birds' habits.

Up the beach they toil, the grey-blue feathers on their backs and heads shining wet. They are intent only on getting home to their children, and take little heed of the portable spotlight trained on them.

However, the people watching from the outer darkness are asked to keep quiet, just in case any bird takes fright and vomits up his catch before he gets to the nest, in which case the unfortunate babies would go hungry.

Overburdened

They roll from side to side like good-natured drunks, their stomachs overburdened with the weight of the food they carry – sometimes as much as 1lb. their flippers, like two short fat arms, work rhythmically to keep their balance, but sometimes they topple over and have to get up and start again. When this happens, and they get isolated from their group, they wait for any other stragglers that may be coming along, re-form and start off in an orderly fashion again. Anxious to complete their day’s work, they are oblivious that they are offering better entertainment to the silently watching humans than a night at the movies.

They know when they are getting near the tufty hummocks where their nests are, and turn on a wild burst of speed for the last few yards. Just after the hatching, when parenthood is still new and wonderful, they waste no time in forming up on the sand and come smartly up the beach, but, as the babies get older, they get a bit lax and are inclined to stop a minute or so to have a scratch and preen their feathers.

Every morning before dawn – between 3.30 and 4 o'clock – during the summer months, the penguin parents swim out to sea to fish. Though feathered like a bird, they do not fly out, using their powerful arm-like flippers as paddles and steering with their webbed feet, they cut through the water at a speed of 30 to 35 miles an hour. They swim beneath the surface, coming up every three or four minutes to breathe, and have been seen by fishermen 30 miles out from their haunts.

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Article as it appeared in the newspaper.

"Phillip Island Penguins" The Age.

For the Hungry

They fish all day with their long, 
slightly curved beaks, choosing mostly white-bait, and by nightfall, are stuffed with food for the hungry babies back home. Once in their nests, they disgorge the predigested food and, judging by the noise, the young appreciate papa and mama's efforts.

All over that rough stretch of headland, from nests concealed under the tussocky grass and hidden by darkness, came a steady, penetrating chorus of delighted squeals. The sound is staccato, like that of the rat, but varies greatly in volume and depth.

After spending the winter months at sea, the birds return to this particular corner of Phillip Island in September or October and lay their two eggs – about as big as a pullet’s egg – in their deep, cosy burrow.

They use the same nests each year and these gradually get deeper as they are cleaned out each season. The eggs take 28 days to hatch and each parent takes it in turn to sit, while the other goes out to fish for food.

A close-up of a baby penguin, judged to be about five weeks' old, showed him to be nearly as big as his parents, and covered in a coat of softest down, grey-blue on top and beautifully white underneath. At 10 weeks the young are ready to go to sea.

Though their actual burrows are fairly sheltered, their part of the island – Penguin Corner – is that which juts boldly south into the tumbling waters of Bass Strait. This is as far into the temperate regions as any penguins come.

These little Phillip Islanders are often called the "Fairy" penguins, and are a much smaller species than those found in the Antarctic, measuring about 12 to 15 inches, against the three feet and a half and 80lb. weight of the "Emperor" and "King" penguins.

They are black and white, either, like those in the colder regions, but grey-blue and white. Their color is probably determined, as a safety device, by their fishing haunts – blue for the water of Bass Strait and white for the foam.